Ep 26: What is data literacy?

What is Data Literacy?

In the latest episode of Talk Tech with Data Dave, hosts Alexis and Data Dave tackle the complex topic of data literacy with a unique twist. They challenge the traditional use of the term, arguing it might be misleading by implying the existence of “data illiteracy.” Through a lively discussion, they introduce the concept of data awareness as a more inclusive and less intimidating approach to understanding and using data in everyday decisions. Dave’s expert insights, combined with Alexis’s relatable analogies, like making pancakes, make for an engaging listen. This episode is perfect for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of data without getting bogged down by jargon. It’s about empowering listeners to see data as an accessible tool for informed decision-making, rather than a daunting obstacle. Tune in for a fresh perspective on data that’s as enlightening as it is entertaining.

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Published:

May 28, 2024

Duration:

00:18:23

Transcript

Alexis
Hi everyone. Welcome to Talk Tech with Data Dave. I’m Alexis, your host of this podcast, and I’m here with Data Dave to answer your questions about all things data, all things cloud, all things technology, and all things D3Clarity. Morning, Dave. 

Data Dave
Good morning, Alexis, how are you this morning? 

Alexis
I’m good. I’m excited. We have a question today that kind of stems from our last recording. And so, I’m pumped to talk about it. But before we do that, I do want to remind people that you can always submit a question to Data Dave by emailing us at talktech@d3clarity.com. We’ll be happy to answer your question on the podcast, and we’d love to have you on the podcast to discuss your question if you’d be interested. So, talktech@d3clarity.com. Hopefully, we’ll hear from you soon.  

Dave, in our last Talk Tech recording, we ended the conversation around data literacy. And I called you out on it and said I sat through a webinar where the person who was presenting argued that the phrase data literacy was not a good phrase. We talked about it for a moment, and then I said let’s put a pin in that so we can record again.  

So, today I was hoping you can answer the question, what is data literacy? And then hopefully, we can chat a little bit about that idea of whether or not the phrase data literacy is actually serving us as a data community.  

So, what is data literacy? Let’s start there. 

Data Dave
First of all, I do completely agree with the person you were listening to that data literacy is perhaps not doing us any favours.  

What is data literacy? Well, what is literacy? Literacy is just the ability to read. You are literate, or you are illiterate. You can or cannot read. Your level of literacy is probably in strictest terms, the amount of understanding that you gain from reading. 

Are you very literate? Have you read a lot? Are you not so literate so it’s harder work? And you’re not so literate in the speed of your uptake of information from reading. 

Alexis
Classic sense of the word literacy that we would learn by looking up the definition of it or something we would learn in like elementary school, okay. 

Data Dave
Right. If we wanted to look at the word literacy directly, we probably could, and we’d probably get the same definition. Therefore, when you start talking about data literacy from a purist point of view, you’re starting to talk about the ability for an individual to pick up information from the data that surrounds them. “Am I literate in the data?” There’s more than just reading it. There’s, “Do I have the ability to glean information from what I’m looking at.” That’s really where you’re going with literacy. 

Alexis
Do I have the ability to take the data and understand what the data means? 

Data Dave
Right level of skill in using the data and reading the data to derive action or derive information from it. Same as you would with the book. If I read a book, am I highly literate? If I’m highly literate, I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve got a good skill in being able to read that book and glean and inculcate the information from that book for me to make a decision using that information, right? 

Alexis
So, in the world of business or in the world of data, we hear the phrase data literacy all the time, right? And is that really what they’re talking about whenever they’re talking about data literacy in a presentation at a conference? Are they actually talking about the ability to understand data or is there maybe a secondary explanation of it? 

Data Dave
It’s the ability to, yeah, it’s the ability to understand data and the ability to use data. “Am I using data? Do I trust the data? Am I literate in my data? Do I know where the data is? All things data?”  

If you’ve got a library of data, what is my propensity to use that data, read that data, look at that data, and understand that data so that I use it in my daily operation? Am I literate in the data that I have? 

Alexis
Not necessarily, whenever we’re talking about it in the world of business, we’re not necessarily talking about the ability, but we’re actually talking about, “Are you using it? Are you doing what the data says?” 

Data Dave
Well, it’s often used in the terms of, “We want to increase our data literacy.”  

So, we are talking about the skill set of the individuals in using the data that is presented to them. So, it is a skill. You have to say that it’s a skill that you can work, that you can understand, same as reading books, being widely read, etcetera, makes you better at reading books. Using data, reading data makes you better at using data, and it is a slightly different skill than just reading. It is a slightly different skill than just making decisions on your own experience. “I’m going to read the information. I now understand the data, and then I’m gonna make my decision. I’m not gonna just go with my gut feel.” 

Alexis 

In Alexis terms… Alexis pancake terms because I’ve got pancakes on the brain right now. It’s the difference between using a shake and pour Bisquick mix, and making pancakes from scratch. Data literacy or making pancake literacy would be the ability to make the pancakes from scratch, understand how the ingredients work together, and how to make delicious pancakes. 

Data Dave
Right. And it might also be in your pancake analogy- it might be using the data that is presented to you to understand the next action. For example, “I’m burning pancakes.” You could just go turn down the pan, and you probably would. But from a data perspective, you might say, “What is the temperature of my pan? Let me know what the temperature of my pan is. Let me turn it down to the right temperature and then store that so that next time so I set it to that temperature right away.” 

So, I’m now using the data in my decision making process and now I’ve got my sources of data my understanding of the data. How is it going to affect me in the future? How am I hanging my behavior because I’ve got data available to me? 

Alexis
That’s super helpful. That explained it a lot to me. Sometimes we got to talk about things in the form of pancakes for me to understand. But that’s how it works. 

Data Dave
But that’s the presentation of data. That’s the, “Are you literate in the data?” 

You could just go turn down the pan, and you’re gonna do the same thing next time. Because in three weeks’ time, you’ll have lost the piece of paper with the temperature written on it but that doesn’t matter. You’d say, “I’m burning my pancakes. I’m gonna turn the pan down whatever it is.” 

You can make the decision based off of the data and having that data it’s what is your propensity to use and your skill in understanding the data. So, people will say we need to increase our data literacy. You’ll hear that term. What does that mean? You’re doing a disservice to some of your people to a certain extent because you’re implying that they don’t know how to use, read, understand the data that is in front of them in order to make the decision. 

Alexis
But I’ve heard you say it 100 times. You are running a successful business already. You are already making money. Just because you are using the idea of data literacy. And I believe that was the point that she was making. 

Data Dave
That’s right, exactly. 

Alexis
The opposite of data literacy is data illiteracy, which is telling people you don’t know what you’re doing. 

Data Dave
Exactly. That’s why I think it does a disservice. Because we’re saying data literacy and the opposite – implying you don’t have it means you are data illiterate. That to me, does everybody a massive disservice.  

Now, I do think there is a need for people to increase their awareness around their data. They’re making good decisions, they’re making good intuitive decisions, they’re operating effectively, and they’ve got the information to make their decisions in their mind, which is data. So, it’s not them making ineffective decisions. It’s kind of, how can we make them more aware of the data that is feeding this decision so that the decision becomes more repeatable? Somebody else could make it? More structured in a sense? Maybe less information needed to make it, etcetera, etcetera? Because you’re understanding and drilling into the data, and you’re simply wanting people to be more aware of the structured data. I don’t mean structured in terms of database. I mean the structured idea of data.  

We all use data all the time. Your pancake example. You knew the pan was too hot, so you turned it down. That isn’t a data-illiterate decision. That was, “The pans too hot. I’ve got data that says pans too hot, so I’m going to turn it down. How much I’m gonna turn it down? I’m gonna turn it down by about 1/4 of a turn on the dial.” That is a data-driven decision. 

Alexis
Uh-huh. Cause I know how my I burner works. 

Data Dave
Because you. Right. You know how your burner works. You know a lot about it. You don’t have to measure and know that the pan is exactly 493° or whatever it is. “And I’m gonna turn it down to exactly what this number is.” It’s a data-driven decision, but you’ve made it in an experiential kind of way rather than data-driven kind of way. And I think it does people a disservice. What we’re really saying is awareness of the data that is surrounding them and awareness of the data as a commodity. Would it be better for you to know that pancakes cooked best at 450° or 423° or whatever the number is, yes. Then you could set it directly to that and have a nice life and move on, but that doesn’t mean you’re not making a data-driven decision to just know that it’s too hot and turn it down by quarter of a turn. 

Alexis
For our listeners out there who are making pancakes. 350 to 375 is really the ideal temperature for making pancakes. I do know that because I make a lot of pancakes, if you can’t tell. But yes, I hear what you’re saying. I learned that through experience, and I collected multiple times of me burning and under cooking pancakes to find out what the best temperature was to cook pancakes in my household. I have a griddle that has a knob on it. That’s the only reason I know the actual temperature. 

Data Dave
Perfect. But that’s data-driven now,. you see? Uh-huh. Is that awareness. See, I would never know that because my pancake dial doesn’t have a temperature on. It’s just so much of a turn.  

Alexis
When you said 493° I was like, “Ohh my gosh, Dave. Of course, you’re burning your pancakes!” 

Data Dave
I was just making up numbers. I wasn’t even thinking about pancakes, really. 

Alexis
Ohh, I always think about pancakes. I’m sorry. It’s maybe breakfast time. We were talking about doughnuts earlier. It’s a whole thing.  

Now, there are other phrases that we use in the data world that we have talked about before that probably do us a disservice. Data governance is a good example of that. We talked about that in one of our Dives Deeper episode where we talked about how the word governance implies that there is some sort of like, “You’re in trouble if you don’t follow the rules.” 

Data Dave
That’s right. And that’s the issue I have with it. And again it comes back to, you’re running a successful business. Of course you have some governance on your business. You have controls, you have management on your business. You may not call them governance necessarily. You might not call them that.  

We put these terms on it that are a little too dramatic, in my opinion. Data literacy, therefore, the opposite is data illiterate. We’re adding data governance. Therefore, if you don’t do it, your data isn’t governed. Well, that’s not true. That’s not true either. The data may or may not be fit for purpose. We’re not aware of how the data is used, can be used, could be used better in our environment to make better decisions. To me, it’s more about the alignment and the management of the data to the business. Knowing that the data describes the business and knowing that the business is using the data because it’s got something that describes the business. So, you’re using it to make those decisions is more accurate than we end up with no dramatic terms. We can’t say data governance. We have to say data alignment and then everybody says, “So I’m spending this much money to be aligned or whatever.” It’s a double edged sword. But I do think some of these terms do not do as necessary any favours. 

Alexis
When you’re talking to business professionals, not to data professionals, not IT professionals. I know you said like before that instead of using data governance as a phrase, you prefer business management or data management. If you were going to use a phrase like data literacy with business professionals, what would be a good alternative language to use to help business professionals, who are not IT or data professionals, understand what you’re saying, but in a less harsh light? I just figure a good tidbit of advice from Dave would be helpful. 

Data Dave
So, I usually would use the term awareness. “Are you aware of the data that you are using and of the information that you use to make that decision?” It’s that awareness… yes, you’re aware of the decision. That’s not the point. Are you aware, consciously aware of the data that informed you, so that you could make the decision? 

Alexis
I love that phrase. 

Data Dave
That’s the way I would go because you’re going to make that decision. You’re going to turn down the pancakes. It is data-driven. It’s been data-driven for a long time. But are you aware… consciously aware of the data involved in that decision? And often we’re not consciously aware of it. We take it for granted. We take our knowledge for granted, and we don’t trace the lineage, if you like, from data to information to knowledge.  

I know that the stove is too hot. How did you know the stove is too hot? What data caused what information, that said, “I’ve now got knowledge that it’s too hot. I can take action.”? And I think being aware of that structure ,that lineage of knowledge to say, “I want to do this. I want to go out for coffee this morning.” There is data that is informing you, and there is data behind that that says, “I’m going to go to the Starbucks down the road or whatever it is to get this cup of coffee.”  

“Am I aware of the data that made me say that? Am I aware of the fact that this is extra effort and for some reason this morning, I’m prepared to take that extra effort instead of making a cup on my pajamas? I’m going to actually put some clothes on, go outside, and real clothes, drive a car, get the coffee, and do it versus going and having it delivered.” 

Sorry, this was the conversation we were having earlier, so. 

Alexis
Yeah, that is exactly what I did this morning. I put on real clothes for the first time in a little while. I left my house for the first time in a little while, and I went and got myself a cup of coffee and a doughnut. But to the point, it was a data-driven decision because I knew I hadn’t left my house in five days and I needed some fresh air and I needed to not be inside my walls and I knew that for my mental and physical health I needed that.  

And so although this was just me thinking, the truth is I was running those numbers, those data points through my head. “Like when was the last time you left your house? It was four days ago.” 

Data Dave
Exactly.  

Alexis
“How are you feeling on a scale of one to 100? Ohh I’m kind of feeling like I need some fresh air.” 

Data Dave 

“Yeah, I’m gonna be grumpy this evening if I don’t leave my house and get some fresh air today. Because it’s been however long.” And so, you’re now aware of that data and that that would be increased data literacy and more awareness of the data that is driving that decision. 

Alexis 

Awareness: That is a much better phrase than data literacy, I think. If you were coming at me as a non-technical person with those two phrases, I think I would definitely be a lot more accepting of the phrase awareness. “Am I aware of what data is driving?” 

Data Dave 

Right. Exactly, especially when you explain it and say, “Are you truly aware of that? Could you write down the data that drove that decision? Are you aware of the data?” And I mean consciously aware, yes, we’re aware of the data, but are we consciously aware of the data, and are we literate in the data that we are reading in order to be aware of it. That’s where we’rebringing back that literacy. It’s much softer term to say, “You are not aware of the data that you use to make that decision.” That’s a much softer view. You still make the decision, you’re still good, but to say you’re illiterate in that data is pretty draconian. It’s pretty negative. That to me does not have the connotations and the idea that you’re gonna increase awareness. That’s my thinking. 

Alexis
That’s fantastic, Dave. Thanks for talking me through that today. I think that we all have a little bit of a better idea of what the phrase data literacy means, but also for non-technical people out there who want to know another idea of something to use to help bridge the gap between the technical world and the non-technical world, using phrases like awareness or management are much better phases to use, so I appreciate that. Before we go, Dave, anything else fun or exciting to announce to the team? 

Data Dave
Just, we’re continuing to do these, and we’re having a good time with them, and we’re interviewing more and more people, so please get the questions into us. We’re delighted to answer them and to have discussions with people other than just Alexis and ourselves. While we like each other, we’d like to stare at other people as well. So, please get the questions in. Please talk to us and suggest them. Yeah. And that’s all I have for this morning. 

Alexis
Definitely keep your eyes peeled for upcoming episodes of Data Dave Dives Deeper. We have lined up a number of professionals from the data world to talk more on a one on two basis, I guess, to talk more about their life and data. So, check those out whenever you see them post on our channel. And we would appreciate if you would like, comment, and subscribe. Those are always good for our numbers, but they also really help other people find this podcast. 

Share with a friend, and hopefully, we will talk to you again in a couple of weeks. Thanks, everyone! 

Data Dave
Thank you. 

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